BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 09 SEP 98
Featured in
Issue 42

Martin Parr

BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 09 SEP 98

It took a record-breaking 21 telephone calls to the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, under whose inauspices Martin Parr's 'Ooh La La' is curated, to get the name, address and opening hours of the venue for this show. 21 calls of irritable unhelpfullness, information messages that did not provide information, incorrect numbers given, four of which rang into four voids without answering machines - all this made the old style DHSS seem a paragon of kindly service in comparison.

The name, Treadwells Art Gallery, its address and opening times, were finally coaxed from a sullen man, who reluctantly parted with the details in mean increments, each requiring a separate appeal. Confusingly, on arrival, the name Treadwells did not appear on the building. No less than three other names did, however: the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television; the National Museum in Exile; and ArtMill. Inside, it all appears to be one space, the staff using the four different names according to capricious mood. Sad bastards to the end, they insist that the name 'Treadwells' is clearly present outside the building, which it is not, and that there is no catalogue, which there is.

All this is entirely consistent with the Great Britain that Martin Parr depicts in his photographs - a place of bad quality food, bad quality skin and bad quality everything else. Except in this case, his remit has been extended to Europe, where his brief, as a participant in the Year of Photography and Electronic Image, is to 'ask important questions about the nature of Europe and its changing political, cultural and economic identities'. His brief, though, seems to give him no expectation to provide important answers to the important questions.

In the past, Parr has successfully pioneered a recognisable trademark technique of nauseatingly saturated colour and fill in flash, brazenly sacrificing all human dignity to his unforgiving lens. His pictures are accessible, cruelly funny, and effect a kind of truth-making within a subverted form. The morality, or not, of this has provided much copy in The Guardian. His work came to prominence in the 80s, and seemed particularly appropriate in the context of Thatcherite consumer trash culture, although this credit, understandably, is running out.

Parr's Europe comprises seven countries, to which he has confidently applied the principle of ridicule that is his technique. About 40 large-format photographs, and 96 colour photocopies (all works are untitled, 1997-98) describe Europe in terms of the principal perceived clichés of its inhabitants: their food, tourist trinkets and hats. Germany is represented by a fat sweaty pig with a crewcut, England by a thinner sweaty pig in a bowler hat and pinstripes, and other countries by various sized pigs and their windmills and tulips, pizzas and garlicky snails. There are no black people or Asians whatsoever.

The works are bold, funny and fearless - or not - depending on one's humanist liberal guilt threshold, squeamishness, or degree of habituation to Parr's previous works. Some of his devices are now overworked, such as his macho cropping technique, seen in the 15 studies of greasy backs of heads. Others seem fresher, such as a huge macro shot of a postcard detail showing a Spanish beach, on which the price sticker remains: 225 pts. His studies of the mouth are truthful observations of Europe's universal oral rhythms of eating, drinking and talking crap into mobile phones in public places.

Parr's mobile perspective and viewpoint is that of a housefly; buzzing around people's heads, landing on the edges of their plates and food displays, and viewing everything as a fantastically enlarged, over-coloured world upon which to masticate regurgitated vomit, and enjoyably shit. Many photographers publicly dislike Parr because he shamelessly reveals the predatory basis of certain aspects of documentary photography, which usually prefers to consider itself in terms of dignified social concern, or the neutralities of reportage. As photography accords itself, and is accorded, a higher and higher status, Parr violently rocks the smarmy boat of self congratulation. In this sense, although his work fails literally and metaphorically to look people in the eye, frightened of confronting their gaze, it remains somehow deeply honest.

Neal Brown is an artist and writer based in London, UK.